Good EPI data has a number of dynamic features that are perfectly normal once a few basic properties of the sample - a person's head - are considered. The task is to differentiate these normal features from abnormal (or abnormally high) artifacts and signal changes. We'll look at axial slices first because these are the most common slice prescription for fMRI. (Axial oblique slices will exhibit much the same features as the axial data considered here.)
The data we will consider in this post were acquired with a single shot, gradient echo EPI sequence on a Siemens Trio/TIM scanner, using the 12-channel head RF coil and a pulse sequence functionally equivalent to the product sequence, ep2d_bold. (See Note 1.) Parameters were typical for whole cortex coverage (the lower portion of the cerebellum tends to get cut off): 34 slices, 3 mm slice thickness, 10% slice gap, TR=2000 ms, TE=28 ms, flip angle = 90 deg, 64x64 matrix over a 22.4 cm field-of-view yielding 3.5 mm resolution in-plane, full k-space with phase encoding oriented anterior-posterior. (See Note 2 for advanced parameters.) The entire time series was 150 volumes in duration but in the movies and statistical images that follow I've considered only the first fifty volumes. (See Note 3 if you want to download the entire raw data and/or the movies and jpeg images.)
Let's start by simply looping through the volumes with the contrast set to reveal anatomy. Play this through a couple of times to familiarize yourself with it, then read on (click the 'YouTube' icon on the video to launch an expanded version in a separate tab/window):
Other than movement of the eyes and some large blood vessels in the inferior slices, at this resolution it's difficult to determine with certainty which regions are fluctuating and which are stationary. So let's zoom in on some of the central slices and replay the cine loop:
Now we can see that there's quite a bit of brain pulsation going on. Indeed, nothing appears stationary now! However, the edges of the brain don't appear to be moving very much so we can be reasonably confident that the pulsation is due to normal physiology and not a fidgety subject.